DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox, 1953) Twilight Time
In the days before the iconography we perceive today as being Marilyn Monroe completely devoured our misperceptions about her talent – fit only as the perennially bubble-headed platinum ditz (and don’t get me wrong; this, she did extremely well), Monroe offered us the briefest glimpse into the full breadth of her talents as a serious actress. By the time she appeared in Roy Ward Baker’s Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) Marilyn Monroe was already the veteran of 17 pictures – most, forgettable – or appearing to good solid effect merely in a cameo. These latter stints steadily garnered her the wrong kind of interest for a much splashier – if vacuous – tenure as the peroxide blonde that gentlemen would always prefer. Again, no false modesty here. I adore this Monroe; bright-eyed, naïve, yet fun-lovingly oozing honey-sweet sex appeal. If only Monroe, like the astute and hilarious Loralei Lee she played in Gentleman Prefer Blondes one year later, had taken a bit of that character’s homespun advice – to find ‘happiness’ and ‘stop having fun’ – we might have had Marilyn Monroe for decades to follow, instead of losing her to ‘possible suicide’ at the tender age of 36.
For those unaware of how very fine an actress Monroe actually was, Don’t Bother to Knock will come as a startling revelation; Monroe, the terrifyingly deranged babysitter, Nell Forbes. If Daniel Taradash’s screenplay occasionally lacks the trademark immediacy of a bona fide psychological thriller – and, it does, meandering through a series of vignettes, some more successful at achieving the necessary edginess than others – Monroe’s scintillating performance as our wacko caregiver, who turns out to be anything but, never fails to impress. The picture is based on a largely forgotten novel by Charlotte Armstrong; the movie, even less readily revived today as part of Monroe’s canon, perhaps because she is so disturbingly on point as the deeply troubled and vulnerable creature whose curious blend of unstable wickedness and doe-eyed openness generates empathy from the rather callous lover boy, Jed Towers (Richard Widmark); a would-be Lothario cum savior in the nick of time.
In hindsight, Niagara (1953) is a transitional showcase for the Monroe persona that had been (in movies like 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle), and the identity yet fully to take hold and become her dominant for the rest of her days; part cyanide/part slinky sex kitten. Monroe’s performance in Don’t Bother to Knock leans more heavily toward the former, with little beyond intrinsic flashes of the latter. Indeed, in crafting this performance, Monroe was inspired by the hellish psychological spiral of her own mother. Rather fatalistically, the actress always feared she too would follow in these footsteps. And regrettably, in a few short years Monroe veered into the abyss, derailing three marriages and her movie career.
It has been famously stated ‘You can’t take an audience home with you at night.’ And yet. one often gets the impression of stars like Marilyn Monroe and, say Judy Garland, that if only the men in their lives had truly appreciated their giving nature and innate passion for life and to be loved, if only time had been invested to unearth the ‘real’ woman lurking beneath the star; only then, would each have been spared their fitful fates and untimely ends. Perhaps – perhaps not. The human psyche is a curious thing. And while some are more fragile than others, chronically searching, dare we suggest, and, in desperate need of precisely such compassion to validate their very existence, the truth of the matter – though perhaps ever more so in Monroe’s case – is that whatever their spell-binding talents, each lacked the wherewithal to trust their intuition and recognize their strengths and merits. It is exhausting to be around someone as brilliant who never thinks they are good enough, even to be counted among the rank and file of the status quo. The constant need to be heard, loved, and convinced (and, never to be) of self-worth is draining. Alas, when the adulation of millions moves on, the emotionally needy are destined to fall apart. And this seems to be precisely the case with Marilyn Monroe – in life – and more directly, her alter ego, Nell Forbes in Don’t Bother to Knock.
The picture is also notable for the debut of Anne ‘Mrs. Robinson’ Bancroft, as nightclub chanteuse, Lyn Lesley. Bancroft gives a flirtatiously cynical performance that garnered her critical praise, but otherwise very little attention at the time. Loosely based on Charlotte Armstrong’s 1951 novel, Mischief, this also became the film’s early working title, before going through another permutation as ‘Night Without Sleep’, then; finally, Don’t Bother to Knock. While the general rule in art is that it ought never be made by committee, film belies this theory in spades, and occasionally to its own detriment. Fox contract player, Dorothy McGuire, having made something of a splash in 1947’s Gentlemen’s Agreement, and even before, in RKO’s The Enchanted Cottage (1945), would see her popularity as the ‘mousy’ gal makes good suddenly cool; later, to be resurrected in more maternal roles for Walt Disney (Old Yeller, 1957) and Swiss Family Robinson, 1960). Being overlooked for Marilyn Monroe is perhaps forgivable since there are few, if any, contemporaries before or since to compete in Monroe’s class for sheer, undulant sex appeal. Alas, replacing veteran noir artiste, Jules Dassin in the director’s chair with the work-a-day Roy Ward Baker is, in hindsight, a mistake. Dassin had illustrated a real yen for mood-evoking film noir with 1948’s Naked City, and, 1950’s Night and the City – a pair of haunting character studies, casting a jaundiced view on the seedy underbelly of life. Don’t Bother to Knock might have benefited immensely from his expertise.
Immediately following the main titles, a regurgitation of a score composed by Lionel Newman for 1950’s Panic in the Streets, we settle in on a fairly pedestrian ‘boy meets girl’ plot; lounge singer, Lyn Lesley, rather anxiously awaiting the return of her airline pilot/beaux, Jed Towers (Richard Widmark) inside New York’s McKinley Hotel. Lyn’s nervousness extends from a ‘Dear John’ letter she wrote her lover just prior to his last flight, effectively ending their six-month affair on a decided note of cowardice. Lyn has her reasons. Like Oz’s Tin Man, Jed lacks an understanding heart. Unwilling to be his ‘good-time gal’ for kicks and cocktails, Lyn continues to harbor mixed emotions about the man she would prefer to ditch, but whose memory she cannot detach from her heart. In another part of the hotel we meet lift operator, Eddie (Elisha Cook Jr.). He introduces his niece, Nell Forbes to hotel guests, Peter and Ruth Jones (Jim Backus and Lurene Tuttle) as a viable babysitter for their daughter, Bunny (Donna Corcoran). The Joneses are in town on business and expected to attend a black-tie affair inside the hotel’s ballroom later that evening. All seems well…briefly.
Except, after the couple has gone and Nell puts Bunny to bed she tries on Ruth’s lacy negligee, jewelry, perfume and lipstick. It becomes abundantly clear this is not the first time Nell has taken such liberties with a stranger’s belongings. Nor, perhaps, is she playing with a full deck – mentally. The girl definitely has issues. Too bad, Nell has forgotten to draw the drapes first. From across the way, Jed catches glimpses of Nell in Ruth’s slinky/kinky lingerie and elects to call her room, hoping for an invite. She is not amused. Moreover, she is slightly spooked – at first. Meanwhile, Eddie decides to check in on his niece. Evidently, he is quite aware Nell is not a well woman, and, having discovered her in Ruth’s clothes he is appalled. Eddie orders Nell to immediately change. Herein, we get a bit of needless back story to explain dear ole Nell’s mental state. In is one of those vintage Hollywood conventions that believed ‘a reason’ was always in order for narrative clarity – and, in Nell’s case – empathy for the character, we learn Nell was engaged to Philip, an air force pilot killed on a routine mission in Hawaii. It was an epic loss, and one pushing Nell’s fragile emotional state right over the edge. Ever since, Eddie has felt sort of ‘responsible’ for her.
Eddie reminds Nell that she might just as well concentrate on finding another boyfriend; one who will provide for her all the luxuries to which she obviously believes she is entitled. Nell placates Eddie with promises to reform, but quietly encourages him to leave. Only moments later, Nell gets in even deeper, inviting Jed over for a drink. He does not need to be coaxed. And so, he arrives in his best cock-of-the-walk manner, plying Nell with cheap, flashy charm. She pretends to be the lady elegant and a guest of the hotel. As this is a PG-rated sort of rendezvous, we get more talk than action. Nell wants Jed to tell her about himself. Regrettably, the answers she gets are not the ones she wants to hear. Jed is a pilot too. Oh no, déjà vu. At the same time, Bunny awakens and inadvertently exposes Nell’s true identity as her babysitter to Jed. We get our first real glimpse at just how unhinged Nell truly is, as she proceeds to violently shake Bunny before ordering her off to bed. Jed is appalled and more than a little unnerved by Nell’s reaction. While he has no children of his own, Jed is nevertheless sympathetic towards Bunny. He comforts the visibly distraught girl and allows her to stay up. Momentarily leaving the room, Jed mercifully reenters in time to see Bunny peering out an open window with Nell apparently ready to pounce from behind and push her through it to her death. Rescuing the girl at the last possible moment, Nell vehemently denies Jed’s accusation. Nevertheless, the ‘incident’ is witnessed from across the courtyard by long-term hotel resident, Emma Ballew (Verna Felton).
The mood grows more ominous still as Nell hurries Bunny off to bed, threatening to do harm to her favorite toy unless she behaves and does exactly as she is told. Jed has had enough. He’s no shrink. Besides, despite her sultry appeal, Nell is a basket of nerves and contradictions Jed has neither the time nor the inclination to stir or pick apart. Making the executive decision to go downstairs to the lounge and plead for Lyn to take him back, Jed must first ward off a rather frantic Nell, who plies him with panicked kisses. Instead, Jed discovers scars on Nell’s wrists. Now, she tearfully explains how after Philip’s death she tried to commit suicide with a razor. Having finished his shift, Eddie returns to the suite to check up on Nell. Only Jed is still in the room when Eddie arrives. So, Nell hurries him into the bathroom. Irate to discover her still wearing Ruth’s slinky negligee, Eddie forcibly wipes the lipstick from Nell’s mouth. Suspecting Nell has a man tucked away Eddie elects to do a search of the suite. To prevent him, Nell strikes Eddie with a heavy object, rendering him momentarily unconscious.
Jed is unnerved by Nell’s cruelty and tends to Eddie while she disappears momentarily into Bunny’s bedroom. Meanwhile, Emma Ballew, whose inner-Miss Marple has been triggered after witnessing the aforementioned ‘open window’ incident, has since convinced her husband (Don Beddoe) to accompany on her investigation of the occupants of this suite. Fearing for his job, Eddie persuades Jed to hide behind the door while he slips into the closet. Instead, Jed hides in Bunny's room. In the dark, Jed is quite unaware the girl has been bound and gagged by Nell. Superficially calmed in their suspicions, the Ballews depart. But Emma is startled to see Jed exiting from an adjacent door. Now, she erroneously speculates Jed may be holding Nell hostage. The elderly couple alert the house detective. In the meantime, Nell has regressed into her past, certain Jed is Philip and locking Eddie in the closet as she prepares to reenter Bunny’s room. Having escaped this looney layout…just barely…Jed’s conscience will not rest. He hurries to the lounge and confides in Lyn where he has been all night. She is genuinely stirred by his concern for the little girl. Alas, in recounting the tale, Jed comes to a disturbing realization: Bunny was lying on the wrong bed.
Hurrying back to the suite, Jed arrives too late to beat the Joneses; Ruth, discovering her daughter still bound and gagged in the bedroom. Screaming for help, Ruth is forced into a struggle with Nell. Jed burst into the room, prying Nell off Bunny before untying her. In the resulting confusion Nell slips away. Eddie is forced to admit to the Joneses, Jed and the house detective Nell is newly released from the state mental hospital, having suffered a complete nervous breakdown after Philip’s demise and her subsequent attempt at suicide. Concerned for Nell’s wellbeing, Jed pushes through the crowd. Too bad Nell has already stolen some razor blades. As onlookers crowd her in the lobby, Nell threatens to slash her wrists. Jed appears, tender and empathetic; extending his hand in friendship. Shaken by his generosity, and still under the delusion he may be Philip, Nell finally agrees to accompany police officers called in to apprehend her. Jed promises Nell she will be treated fairly and with dignity. His sincerest hope is for Nell to receive the necessary help she so obviously needs to be well. Convinced the man she broke up with has since matured considerably, Lyn decides to take Jed back.
Until its’ rather transparent ‘all’s well that ends well’ finale, Don’t Bother to Knock is a creepy little programmer, elevated by some extremely solid performances. For those only familiar with Marilyn Monroe as a platinum sex symbol, this may not be your cup of tea. Nevertheless, Monroe illustrates a superior presence of mind. As this emotionally disturbed babysitter, immersed in a portrait from her own memory, Monroe emerges as a thoroughly convincing, if terribly lost and unstable woman of substance. Her performance is neither dipped in stock villainy nor teeters on the expectation of rank victimization. Monroe comes so close to the truth in her own way, channeling the state of mind of her real mother into that of her deranged alter ego, we believe her implicitly from start to finish. Despite glycerin good looks, as Nell Forbes, Monroe manages almost miraculously to strip away even a glimmer of that otherwise trademarked and Teflon-coated sexiness for which she is justly famous and universally adored today. Were that someone at 2oth Century-Fox had possessed the wherewithal to promote her to more meaty parts like this, perhaps in tandem with the lighter, frothier stuff we best remember her now, I suspect Marilyn Monroe would have been considered one of the all-time acting greats of her generation today. Richard Widmark, Elijah Cook Jr. and Ann Bancroft are all good, but this show truly belongs to Monroe and she devours the scenery with sad-eyed clarity, prolifically projected ahead of those sad later years that would come to plague her megawatt star persona, cooling like a supernova to its premature death. Don’t Bother to Knock never rises above a B-grade and middling thriller. But Monroe gives it both cache and class.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray release advances in all the ways one might expect, and one that may lead some to question its hi-def authoring. Fox’s dated DVD release from 1997 sported a much darker image, with exaggerated contrast levels that, upon renewed inspection, appear to have been boosted. Lucien Ballard’s cinematography was never as heavily influenced by the chiaroscuro effects of noir lighting. On the whole, the TT Blu sports a brighter image, with contrast brought back in check; the tonal grey values falling into a mid-register, revealing more fine background details and film grain. The image is also free of age-related dirt and damage. This is an excellent remastering effort from a brand new 2K scan derived from surviving elements provided to TT by Fox. The audio is 2.0 DTS mono and adequate for this presentation. TT has packed this release with an isolated score, and two Biography Specials: Marilyn Monroe - The Mortal Goddess, and, Richard Widmark: Strength of Characters, plus an original theatrical trailer and liner notes from Julie Kirgo. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)